Column: Growing the game

UConn Men's Hockey plays against UMass in the XL Center Thursday night. The Minutemen defeated the Huskies 3-2. Spencer Naas scored the first goal in period one and Jesse Schwartz scored the second goal in period three. (Nicholas Hampton/The Daily Campus)

NCAA Division 1 Ice Hockey is a largely stagnant sphere. It could be argued that UConn, with its move to Hockey East, increased resources, hiring of coach Mike Cavanaugh and move to Hartford is essentially one of its “new” programs. It truly was that seismic of a move. Since then, two additional new programs have cropped up at Arizona State (an awkward and surprising fit) and Penn State (which was birthed by a mega-donation from Buffalo Bills and Sabres owner Terry Pegula). But the sport is still an incubator for talent and, in hockey-affectionate areas, a massive source of pride and fan support.

That is why in June 2017 the NHL and NHLPA, in an effort to grow the sport domestically, announced the commission of five feasibility studies to explore the possibility for institutions to add both men and women’s hockey programs at the D1 level. The University of Illinois received the first one and it was announced in conjunction with the programs development.

The second public feasibility was announced in October at Oakland University in Detroit, Michigan. The state is a bastion for collegiate puck, with programs like Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan hosting programs at the D1 level despite being traditionally small athletic departments.

According to Mike Snee, the Director of College Hockey Inc., two other programs were conducting the studies confidentially and eight to 10 other schools were interested.

Until yesterday, March 8, not much else had been publicized. Illinois changed that, releasing their findings. According to Snee, “The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men's hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois.” The report reiterated what was already known but more in-depth, Illinois, as a state, has a player pool and fan support that is continually growing stronger among the nation’s best.

The report advocated building a 5,000- to 6,000-seat new arena in downtown Champaign. The Illinois athletic department was noncommittal about creating a program.

It’s a good start, but if there’s no new program, was there really progress?

College hockey could use some more new blood.

UConn men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh took time Tuesday night to speak to the UConn Sport Business Association and discuss professional development philosophies and the realm of hockey at-large. One question I asked him was where in the country or what institutions he would like to see next, since, in theory, there is at least one study still to account for.

He mentioned the Pacific Northwest schools like Oregon, Washington and Washington State, citing fan support (Seattle is on the precipice of a new NHL franchise), the Los Angeles area due to its recent talent production and schools in Arizona who have strong club programs that draw crowds. It’s intriguing as it is an untapped area for the sport to grow and it would give Arizona State a potential travel partner.

With Penn State’s creation, the Big Ten showed a new commitment to hockey, creating their own league and recently adding Notre Dame. Via the USHL, the Midwest has already shown it can support high-level amateur hockey and it would be great for household names, like Iowa, Indiana, Nebraska, Purdue or even Creighton, to take on the challenge.

As an East Coast native however, I am biased in thinking something closer to Storrs would be great. Hockey East is short a member from its optimal existence after all. URI, with its fledgling football program, gets tossed around a lot and would be a nice regional foe. However, the big areas for untapped potential are elsewhere.

The Penguins’ success has brought tremendous interest and participation to western Pennsylvania, why not Pitt or Duquesne? The state as a whole likes hockey; perhaps Penn could revive its old program or one of the Philly Big Five schools could give it a try.

New York and New Jersey are admittedly tough markets to draw fans, but they have been excellent in creating players. Northern New York has several programs already; Syracuse could fit right in. In the Big Apple, you’re telling me a program couldn’t function? St. John’s, Fordham, Manhattan, even Columbia could join its Ivy brethren. In Jersey, the only program is Princeton. Seton Hall could put together a team, or smaller MAAC program would probably fit right in Atlantic Hockey. Rutgers, with the Big Ten hockey conference existence, should be a sleeping giant.

The problem is these are just hypotheticals. The feasibility studies seem destined to reinforce assumptions that have been held for a while. I get it; Title XI is hard, fundraising even harder. But it would be great to actually “grow the game,” not just talk about it.


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.